book review

‘Death of the Black-Haired Girl’ by Robert Stone

The bleak and turbulent universe of Robert Stone’s fiction is populated by troubled minds and anguished souls, shady characters and rash adventurers. In “Death of the Black-Haired Girl,’’ his first novel in a decade, characters like these inhabit a Northeastern college town, a potentially halcyon world that in Stone’s rendering appears every bit as conflicted and contentious as the New Orleans and Jerusalem, Vietnam and Central America of his earlier work.

In the book’s first half, we meet Maud Stack, the eponymous character whose brilliance has enabled her to transcend her origins as the daughter of “a widowed New York policeman from somewhere out in Queens” and win scholarships to attend a top liberal-arts college. But Maud is no dutiful student; “rash and rebellious,” she hands her papers in long and late, drinks too much, and is embroiled in a year-long affair with Steve Brookman, a popular (and married) professor as well as her adviser.

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Knowing that Maud will die makes for tense reading as she encounters a host of potentially menacing characters: “bums” at the campus’s fringe, “deinstitutionalized mental patients” at a coffee shop, delusional “lost souls who wandered . . . the campus,” “four young Andeans” playing “spectral tunes” on “bamboo flutes,” a “grim procession of pro-lifers” parading around the campus health center.

This is a claustrophobic and anxiety-ridden campus, characterized by gates and locks, keys and codes, “secret signal[s]’’ and missed red flags. Campus scandals are hushed up by an unctuous and politically savvy dean (“the smoothest operator ever to package a denial of college liability in a letter of condolence”); disaffected residents of the once-thriving factory town are kept at bay by campus security; and scores of “depressed, confused or homesick students,” not to mention those felled by addiction, pregnancy, or mental illness, are tended to by an over-burdened and under-supported counseling office.

But guidance is ineffectual and barriers illusory as heroin connects the town to the campus, students crack up, and the taint of madness, crime, and illicit desire infiltrates the hallowed gothic halls.

Maud herself is an inveterate risk-taker and boundary crosser, and nowhere is this more evident than in her piece in the campus newspaper taking on the antiabortion protestors. Filled with satiric invective and accompanied online with gruesome photos of malformed living babies, the piece makes her a hunted figure. “Angry at having their faith ridiculed,” the antiabortion protestors deluge Maud with threatening calls and voicemail messages, even death threats.

And as she is pursued, so Maud pursues; infuriated with Brookman when he decides to end their affair, she stalks him with relentless determination, leaving him a slew of frantic voice messages and paying him drunken visits.

Soon, Maud lies dead on a wintry street, the “victim of a nighttime hit-and-run driver.” The accident occurred outside Brookman’s home; they’d been engaged in a confrontation and surrounded by a crowd. It “is impossible to determine positively what had taken place.” “[T]he spreading tremors of accusation and fear that attend . . . Maud’s death” lead to false confessions, wild rumor, misplaced suspicions, damaged reputations.

But the novel’s second half concerns itself not so much with who killed Maud as with ethical and metaphysical questions: Is Maud’s death the inevitable consequence of irresponsible and reckless acts? Is it divine retribution for her sins or those of her lover or father? Does it demonstrate “the ineluctability of fate” or merely the randomness of existence? How can we cope with “the venom of loss”?

Stone refuses easy answers to questions of accountability and interpretation. He condemns certainty and zealotry in all their guises and across the political spectrum. He is equally critical of a betrayed wife and the girl who stole her husband, left-wing radicals and right-wing “anti-abortion fanatics.”

All are linked by their intolerance of dissenting opinions, their rigid insistence on their own superiority, their reductive judgments about their opponents. He is ruthless in unmasking the self-serving justifications and excuses of adulterers, the arrogance, carelessness, and cruelty of both entitled college students and civic and religious leaders.

Against these convenient fictions or belittling opinions, Stone urges a rigorous honesty about one’s limitations and blind spots and compassion for the errant and wayward.

Three unforgettable characters emerge as unlikely bearers of his lessons: Jo Carr, an “ex-nun who work[s] in the college counseling office”; local cop Ralph Salmone; and Maud’s father, Eddie Stack, whom the other two console and counsel through his “guilt and grief.” Nuns and cops are familiar figures in Stone’s panoply of characters, but these three iterations are distinctively and powerfully realized.

The conversations and connections among the members of this odd trinity enable Stack, self-described as “a burnout and a drunk,” to acquire heroic proportions in his poignant quest to avenge his daughter’s loss and honor her memory. At once unsparing and generous in its vision of humanity, by turns propulsive and poetic, “Death of the Black-Haired Girl’’ is wise, brave, and beautifully just.

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale and Vassar and author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’
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